Category Archives: Writing

Last Week of the Write-a-Thon!

Rage Over Babylon by Ziv QualOkay, I let things get slack here again, but I’m happy to say that I’ve been incredibly productive during these last few weeks of the Clarion Write-a-Thon. As of the end of Week Five, I’m still on target (in point of fact, exactly on target, down to the word). A few things that I’ve discovered in the last three weeks:

  • I don’t seem to be able to write every single day. And when I push myself to do so, my productivity plummets. So I took the tactic of trying to write at least three or four times a week, and that seems to have kept me on track.
  • If I have a particularly good writing session (ergo, over 2K words), I can’t necessarily reproduce that experience by going back to the same location and siting in the same chair, ordering the same drink, etc. There were some days that I hardly did more than daydream.
  • Life will get in the way. Family problems will crop up, small children will get sick, you will get sick, a crisis will have to be dealt with right now. It happens. Rather than beat myself up over the writing time I was missing, I tried to stay more in the moment, and console myself by making up the wordage in later days.
  • Taking weekends off is essential. Seriously. Time to rest and play with my daughter.
  • Writing to a regular schedule is actually not that hard. Being accountable to people (like my donors) was a fantastic motivation to stay on this schedule.

I’m now heading into the final week of the Write-a-Thon. I only have two more shortish chapters to finish and then the Tower novel will be done, and I can type THE END. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying.

I’ve already posted my entry for today, but I want to reiterate something. My background music this afternoon was Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for The Dark Knight Rises, which expresses all the grandeur and tragedy that I’m trying to convey in these final chapters. And I’m reminded of something that Christopher Nolan said about the film, that a great story deserves a great ending. It’s something I’m keeping in mind very much right now, although more prosaically I just keep telling myself not to fuck it all up.

One way or another, this week I will finish my novel. I know that I can fix things in revision, but I’m still hoping against hope that I have the ability and the courage to give this book the ending it deserves.

As I mentioned above, this is the final week of the Write-a-Thon, so if you’ve been considering sponsoring me or one of the other participants, now is the time to do so. If all of the pledges come through, we still need to raise an additional $2K; if none of the pledges comes through, we still need to raise $6K (although the real number will probably be somewhere in the middle). I’ve been very lucky so far to see wonderful generosity from friends, family, and acquaintances, but if you want to add your name to that list, and share in the final exciting moments of me finishing my book, you can do so at my Write-a-Thon profile. Please don’t put it off.

Okay, here are the entries from Weeks 3-5 at Team Hitchhiker:

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Almost Halfway Through the Write-a-Thon

Rage Over Babylon by Ziv QualThings have been quiet here at the blog, as expected, while I pound away at the last section of the Tower novel for the Clarion Write-a-Thon. I’m happy to say that I’m more or less on schedule, having written 12K+ words since I started on 25 June. I’ve run just a smidge behind because of illness and some quite sucky personal issues that I won’t go into here, but I should be able to catch up easily enough to reach my 30K goal by 4 August.

I mentioned in my last entry that I’d be posting weekly round-ups of my entries at Team Hitchhiker, and I have neglected to do that, bad bad writer. So I’ll go ahead and link them individually below. In each entry, I post my progress, a short write-up about what went well or poorly during the writing session, and a short extract of the written work as proof that I wasn’t only playing Diamond Dash during my writing time.

I should reiterate that even though the Write-a-Thon is more than a third over, The Clarion Foundation is still taking sponsorship donations, and will be until the end of the ‘thon. So if you’d still like to sponsor me (and each new sponsor gives me further incentive to achieve my writing goals), you can do so at my Write-a-Thon profile; even if it’s just a few bucks, it helps, believe me.

Okay, here are the entries so far:

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Write-a-Thon Commenced!

The Clarion Write-a-Thon has begun, and I did my first batch of writing today. I’m on Team The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which tickles me to no end), and I’ll be posting my updates both on the Team Hitchhiker Blog and on my Write-a-Thon profile. Although I think that I’ll also post weekly roundups here as well.

Please remember that you can still sponsor me for the six weeks during the Write-a-Thon for any amount; every little bit counts. And the more donors I have, the more accountable I’ll feel, and the more motivated I’ll be to accomplish my goals.

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Clarion Write-a-Thon: Sponsor Me! (updated)

Clarion Write-a-ThonThis is a long entry, but please do read all the way to the end.

For long-time readers of this blog, and its previous incarnation at LiveJournal, you know how important an experience the Clarion Writers’ Workshop was for me. I attended in 2002, the 30th anniversary of the workshop being conducted on the campus of MSU at East Lansing, and it was a transformative experience. Having six weeks to do nothing but write, critique, read, and spend time with like-minded peers was a wonderful gift, and it unlocked something inside me that enabled me to begin seeing publication afterwards. Talk to almost any graduate of Clarion or Clarion West, and you’ll get a similar story.

And so, this year, exactly one decade after I attended Clarion, as a way for me to give something back, I will be participating in the Clarion Write-a-Thon (Facebook event). During the 2012 six-week session of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UCSD (June 24 to August 4), I will be following along with the 18 participants of the workshop during their frenetic life-changing experience in San Diego, and in solidarity doing a significant amount of writing myself.

My goal at the end of those six weeks is to write the final 30,000 words of my Tower novel (which I have been working on for six and half years at this point, and desperately want to finish), as well as raise some money for The Clarion Foundation (a wonderful non-profit organization that provides funding for the Workshop, and scholarships for the attendees). Broken down, that’s 5,000 words per week, which means that even if I solely write on weekdays, it’s only 1,000 words per day, which is totally doable.

I had planned to do this anyway, since other recent commitments have meant putting aside the Tower novel for a few months, but this structure will, I’m hoping, better enable me to complete my goal, especially if y’all are watching.

But I need your help.

In order to keep me motivated, I need people to sponsor me for the duration of the Write-a-Thon. You can pledge an amount that only gets donated if I complete my 30,000 word goal, or you can make a lump-sum donation on my behalf regardless of whether I get to 30K. Amounts start at $1 and go as high as you want. And because The Clarion Foundation is a nonprofit organization with 501(c)(3) charitable status, donations are tax deductible.

Remember, I don’t see a cent of the money that gets donated; however, if I get a minimum of $20 in donations, I have the option of joining a group of eight Write-a-Thon writers, and having that support structure in place so we can each root each other on. There are also prizes for the top earners, and although I’m less concerned about these than getting the writing done, snagging a Clarion paperweight and/or gift card would be some nice frosting on that cake.

There are a bunch of links on this entry, but here’s the important one ——–> my Write-a-Thon profile. Click there to check out my profile, keep updated on my progress, and make your tax-deductible sponsorship pledges.

Every little bit helps, and it is all appreciated, but here are some additional incentives that may help you to help me:

  • For every pledge of $10, your name will appear in the acknowledgments at the back of the book.
  • For every pledge of $20, you will also receive a DRM-free ebook trio (.epub, .mobi, and .pdf) of the finished Tower novel.
  • For every pledge of $40, you will also receive a DRM-free ebook trio of my short story “Complications of the Flesh,” which was just published in Bull Spec #7, and which shares the fictional setting of the Tower novel.
  • For every pledge of $50, you will also receive a DRM-free ebook trio of my rare 2001 holiday chapbook The Curragh of Kildaire, illustrated throughout by Jamie Bishop.
  • For every pledge of $75, you will also receive both a signed paperback copy and a DRM-free ebook trio of my 2011 collection Red Dot Irreal.
  • For every pledge of $100, you will also receive a signed paperback copy of the Tower novel once it is available.
  • For every pledge of $200, I will also name a character in one of the Tower novel’s final scenes (a prison breakout) after you or a person of your choice.
  • For every pledge of $500, I will also write a special one-of-a-kind story just for you which takes place in the fictional universe of the Tower novel, to be produced as an extremely limited edition signed chapbook of one copy.

If anyone is generous enough to pledge at amounts beyond that, I’ll come up with new tiers and rewards on the fly. 🙂

Thanks in advance!

N.B. My good friend Eugene Myers is participating in the Write-a-Thon for Clarion West; please consider sponsoring him as well.

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CAS: The Teachening

Creative WritingLast week, I once again taught two writing workshops at the Creative Arts Seminar organized on the campus of the National University of Singapore by the Ministry of Education’s Gifted Education Branch, as part of the year-round Creative Arts Programme. The kids who attend are largely already streamed into GEB classes in their schools, although certainly not all; any students in Secondary Year 2 and 3, and Junior College Year 1, who show a strong interest in creative writing can apply to the program (Sec4 and JC2 students who previously attended can come back as councillors). The biggest part of the application is the creative portfolio, which should show evidence of a sense of form, precision with language, truthfulness of feeling, originality of thought and imagination, and sensitivity to the world at large.

So what you get at the CAS are students who really want to be there. As someone who has taught from Sec 1 all the way up to university, it is a welcome and rare experience to have a roomful of students who are actively excited about what you may have to say. They’re engaged and enthusiastic, they ask good questions, they take lots of notes, and they thank you afterward for teaching them. A nice change from what a teacher normally experiences, and I never take such instances for granted.

In addition to teaching the workshops, however, this year I was also invited to give a plenary lecture on a topic of my choice. The time slot was an hour, so I was asked to talk for about 45 minutes, and then allow 15 minutes for Q&A. Lecturing is not usually my forte, but I was still keen to take up the challenge. I knew that I wanted to talk about speculative fiction, and on the transformative effect it can have on the reader, so I decided to write a speech about four key moments in my life where speculative fiction has had a profound impact. I titled it “Embracing the Strange: The Transformative Impact of Speculative Fiction,” and it seemed to go over quite well.

What I hadn’t been told in advance, and this is probably for the best, was that my plenary speech was the very first program item during the week-long seminar; the students spent Monday morning at registration and orientation, then had lunch, then filed into the lecture theatre to listen to me. So I basically opened the entire seminar with my speech. Had I known about this prior to walking in the door, I would have likely been a nervous wreck, but as it was, I didn’t have time to worry about it, so I just got down to work and did my thing. The kids laughed, and went “Aww,” and got very quiet in all the right spots, and then gave generous and flattering applause at the end.

During the Q&A, spurred by my assertions that they should all “embrace their strange” (whatever that might mean), many of the questions were about my impressions of the divide between “high” and “low” culture, and between mainstream and speculative fiction. It was incredibly interesting to see that the students were already thinking about these issues, and also disheartening to hear that authority figures actively dissuaded them from reading genre fiction, labelling such reads as mere “airport books” (with the assumption that they are both disposable and low in literary merit). I reinforced the notion that no one has the right to tell the students what to read for pleasure, and that if they get something (whatever that may be) out of reading Michael Crichton or George RR Martin or even Stephanie Meyer, that they should continue to do so proudly.

My Sec2/3 workshop was entitled “Worldbuilding 101: Strange New Worlds” (lecture notes) and focused mostly on setting and building a fictional world. This replaced last year’s workshop, which was much more introductory and covered a lot of ground but not very deeply; this year, I wanted to just focus on one topic for these kids, and go much more in-depth, with the result that they would have a much stronger foundation for working on their own speculative work.

My JC1 workshop was entitled “Tripping the Heavy Fantastic” (lecture notes), which was a repeat from last year (albeit tweaked slightly), and focused on cross-genre fiction (slipstream/fantastika/magic realism/etc.). I had high hopes for this one, as it went over so phenomenally well last year, and although the group wasn’t quite as active with their participation, and cliques of students tended to chat during the writing exercises, it still went quite well. By the end of the three hours, they each had the beginning to a new slipstream short story, and the ones who shared displayed vivid imaginations and some quite fine writing, even in rough draft. I encouraged them all to submit their work to LONTAR once they felt it was ready for publication.

Apparently, to my delight, both of the workshops filled up extremely quickly. It’s gratifying to see so much interest in what one is offering. However, if any of the students who wanted to get into one of my workshops and was unable to is reading this, I hope you’ll at least take a look at the lecture notes linked above at Scribd; it’s not the same as being there, and listening to me explain it all, but at least it’s something.

I was also quite chuffed to be able to sell so many of my books while I was there: 50 copies of Red Dot Irreal and around 40 copies of A Field Guide to Surreal Botany. I set special discounted prices for the CAP students, and many bought both books together. Here’s hoping that they enjoy what they read in them, and that it spurs a lifelong love for speculative fiction. If anyone was unable to get your copy of either book, the best place to find them in Singapore is BooksActually.

It was a great few days, and I had a lot of fun. I wish I could do events like this much more often than just once or twice a year.

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In Which Jason is Not Interviewed by The New York Times

I’m under deadline to finish writing an 8,000-word short story and a 12,000-word plenary talk cum essay, so today I’m going to perform the time-honored writerly tradition of procrastination and answer a bunch of interview questions instead.

The questions in question (ahem) come from this interview with Neil Gaiman by the New York Times Sunday Book Review (feel free to read Neil’s answers, as they’re guaranteed to be better than mine). The New York Times did not, in fact, interview me, although for the rest of this blog entry I will pretend that they did. Enjoy.

1. What book is on your night stand now?

I just finished re-reading The Enchanter by Vladimir Nabokov, as part of my quest to read all of the man’s published fiction in two years. This ur-Lolita should be judged on its own merits, but it is nigh impossible to do so; the shadow of Lolita (the book, not the girl) looms largest over all Nabokov’s fiction, and takes many of the plot points from The Enchanter and lets them breathe, lets them happen more naturally. My complete impressions of the book (such as they are) can be found here.

Also included on the night stand: Deathbird Stories (Revised and Expanded Edition) by Harlan Ellison, Kafkaesque edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly, After the Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh, The Pottawatomie Giant and Other Stories by Andy Duncan, June Fourth Elegies by Liu Xiaobo, Zeroville by Steve Erickson, and Paradise Tales by Geoff Ryman. (A lot of short stories in that list, I’m just now realizing.)

This of course does not count the around sixty ebooks purchased on or for my NOOK, which are patiently waiting for me to get to them.

2. When and where do you like to read?

I’ve had the habit, since I was in middle school or thereabouts, of reading for at least an hour every night before bed. And in the 25 years since, I’ve more or less kept to this pattern. As I may have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, reading helps my mind to calm down after a sensory-intensive day, and is one of the top activities in which I recharge my overloaded introverted brain. I know that I’ll be able to do so uninterrupted for a decent stretch of time, which aids in the relaxation, and gets my body ready for sleep.

This does occasionally backfire with particularly exciting novels that keep me up into the wee hours. But it’s a risk worth taking.

I love to read during the day as well, in pretty much any location in which I’m left alone, but this is difficult with an exuberant two-year-old running around the house or insisting I join her for a tea party or to solve jigsaw puzzles. If I can snatch a few minutes of reading time during daylight hours, I consider myself incredibly fortunate.

3. What was the last truly great book you read?

I recently finished reading The Mirage by Matt Ruff, and it blew me away. The premise of a politically-reversed world, wherein the United Arab States have been attacked by Christian fundamentalists and in response invade the Christian States of America, turns the entire War on Terror on its head. A riveting thought experiment, and a highly enjoyable fast-paced thriller.

I also quite enjoyed Lewis Shiner’s short novel Dark Tangos, which begins as an exploratory love story and then turns much darker (including a scene of meticulously described torture, which forced me to keep reading into the wee hours so that I could get past it, in order to avoid nightmares). Shiner’s evocation of Buenos Aires and his love of tango make this an incredibly compelling narrative, even, and especially, during the less “exciting” parts.

Some excellent essay collections by fiction authors I already love: Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon, Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson, and The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem, all of which I recommend.

But probably at the top of the most recent books I’ve read would have to be Nabokov’s exquisitely absurd Invitation to a Beheading, which sings with all of the things I’ve come to love about his writing. From my overly enthusiastic and loquacious impressions of the book:

O, what a riotously lovely piece of literature! I realize that Nabokov eschews any kind of Kafkaesque influence, but he and Kafka were clearly drinking from the same narrative well in this case. Our protagonist (with the mellifluous moniker of Cincinnatus C.) knows from the beginning the aspects of falsity and absurdity in the world he both inhabits and feels profoundly apart from. Convicted of the epistemological crime of “gnostical turpitude” (in other words, “depraved knowledge”) and sentenced to punitive decapitation, our dear narrator, who seems, on occasion, to psychologically split himself in twain, exists in a state of stultifying stasis, unaware of his execution date or his executioner, until both are revealed toward the end of the book. His reactions to the increasingly bizarre and hermetically implausible events that surround his impending death—largely consisting of his interactions with his unfaithful profligate of a wife, the prison guard, the warden, Cincinnatus’s lawyer, and his neighbor in the next cell—further illustrate his complete frustration with trying to apply logic in an illogical world, a theme Kafka was also quite fond of exploring.

4. Are you a fiction or a nonfiction person? What’s your favorite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?

I’m pretty firmly in the fiction camp for pleasure reading, of the “paraliterary” variety; most non-fiction to me either feels like work or research for my writing (which is another form of work). The main exceptions to this rule are essays by writers of which I’m already a fan (such as the ones mentioned above), but I also was recently bowled over by No Enemies, No Hatred by Liu Xiaobo (a collection of his political writings and poetry), Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (which I’ve already talked about in this blog), and The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry (a memoir that mainly covers Fry’s time at Cambridge, when he met fine folks like Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, and Rowan Atkinson, and immediately afterward, when he started to become successful in television).

I don’t know that I have any guilty pleasures when it comes to books. There are writers that I adore and will follow no matter what they write (a list of which is entirely too long to lay out here), but I don’t feel guilty about reading any of them.

5. What book had the greatest impact on you? What book made you want to write?

1984 by George Orwell has had by far the greatest impact on me. It was the first book that completely gutted me as a reader; the first time I read it as a required text in high school, the last line made me burst into tears. Only true art can have such an emotional affect. I wasn’t as keen on the political elements on that first reading, although they made more and more sense to me with each subsequent re-read (and also made me realize how political the entire novel is, from top to bottom). 1984 showed me the power of writing, and planted that seed of discovering just what I wanted to say in my own writing.

I don’t know if any one specific book made me want to write. Since I was little, I’d made up little stories, and even wrote one down when I was around seven years old in ur-chapbook form, called “The Pulsar NX is Missing!” about ninjas who steal my mother’s car.

6. If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

Other than my own? I’m not quite sure how to answer, as I don’t like the idea of “requiring” anybody to read anything. I’m happy to recommend, of course, but what am I going to do, stand over Obama’s shoulder monitoring his eyes’ movements over the page? That said, what I would very much like to see him read is a bound report of all the abuses committed by the Transportation Security Administration since its inception after 9/11, with page after page of humiliating accounts of innocent airline passengers being terrorized by the TSA, in the hopes that such a massive collation of offenses would finally convince him to abolish the agency.

7. What are your reading habits? Paper or electronic? Do you take notes?

I still vastly prefer books on paper, but more and more and I’m starting to edge into ebook land. After receiving a NOOK for Christmas, I can see the appeal of ebooks, especially if they might be books I wouldn’t necessarily want to keep on my shelves after finishing them (like Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs), or if they’re books I’d have a hard time finding in Singapore.

I never take notes in books. I’ve worked as both a bookseller and as a librarian, and the thought of marking up the pages in a book with pen or pencil makes me physically shudder. The only times I have broken this rule were for books that I taught in my classes, and even then I did so most grudgingly.

8. Do you prefer a book that makes you laugh or makes you cry? One that teaches you something or one that distracts you?

Yes.

9. Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov, which I stopped at the halfway mark; I found it a difficult, internalized, psychological plod, although I suspect that I might feel differently if I knew thing one about Russian literature. It’s as if, knowing this would be his last major novel written first in Russian (all the ones to follow were originally written in English), he decided to create his love letter to Russian poetry, and to do so in the densest manner possible. I am honestly befuddled by the comments on Goodreads that list it among his top works. It is not surprising at all to me that at the same time as he was writing The Gift, he crafted Invitation to a Beheading, mentioned above; a joyous aside during the creation of such a Serious Work.

10. If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?

There’s a saying that one should never meet one’s heroes, as they will invariably deflate the image one has constructed from hopes and aspirations, but I really would have liked to meet Philip K. Dick. I didn’t get introduced to his writing until I was in college (more than ten years after he’d died), but there was something in UBIK, and in many of his other novels and short stories, that I strongly related to, mostly the idea that the world we know is an illusion, a fabrication, and that we must realize this basic truth in order to see that we are being manipulated. It’s the basic premise of The Matrix (which owes as much debt to Dick as it does to William Gibson and Jean Baudrillard), and it’s one of the core tenets of Buddhism.

11. What’s the best comic book you’ve ever read? Graphic novel?

It’s got to be the ten-volume set of graphic novels that comprise Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. I was a big fan of Gaiman’s prose writing before I made the plunge into his comics work, but this series is such a massive accomplishment, an epic story told in patient beautiful language that upends our assumptions about storytelling itself. One feels after completing the series a sense that the world is both more terrible and more wonderful than we could ever imagine.

12. What do you plan to read next?

The Left Left Behind by Terry Bisson, which is part of PM Press’s Outspoken Authors pocketbooks series. Terry was one of my instructors at Clarion, and I’ve enjoyed his fiction over the years, but it wasn’t until I jumped the gun and read the interview with him in this small book that I realized what a radical activist he was in his youth, and how those political leanings still inform his character today.

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In the Weeds

In the WeedsHi all, sorry I haven’t been posting lately (I find myself saying this a lot, huh?), but I’m under deadline for several projects right now:

  • I’m conducting another BooksActually workshop tomorrow, and I just this afternoon finished preparing for it;
  • I’m writing an article for POSKOD which is due on the 30th, and I need to wrangle my research notes (taken just this past Wednesday) into a form that approximates creative nonfiction (25% finished);
  • I’m looking at the final submissions for Fish Eats Lion (only four days left to submit!), and trying to shape it all into a coherent anthology;
  • I need to read and critique the stories of my mentees in the Ceriph Mentorship Programme for when we next meet on 6 May;
  • I’m writing a story for the Eastern Heathens anthology, and have thankfully been given an extension, as it’s looking right now that it’ll be around 8-10K words long (40-50% finished);
  • I’m writing a 45-minute plenary talk for this year’s Creative Arts Seminar run by the Ministry of Education’s Gifted Education Branch at the end of May, and will pitch it later to Math Paper Press as part of the Babette’s Feast chapbook series (60% finished);
  • I’m conducting two workshops again at the CAS, and will need to change them a bit from last year, both to accomodate this year’s theme and to differentiate them enough in case students took a similar workshop from me in a previous GEB Literature Seminar; and
  • I’ve pledged to write a 500-1,000-word story for The Ayam Curtain, and I haven’t even started thinking about what I might do for this.

I also have a big announcement coming up in about a week, which will lead to more work for the rest of this year; it’s something that I’m very excited about, and it’s taking quite a lot of willpower not to just spill the beans right now, but y’all will have to wait. (I’m such a tease.) 😉

So yeah, I probably won’t be updating much here for the time being. But feel free to catch me at Facebook and Twitter, where I’m slightly more active. Hopefully, by beginning of June, I’ll be out of the weeds and able to get back on the Tower novel again; I really want to finish it by August if possible.

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Why I Write in Cafés

John Scalzi is one of my favorite bloggers, like, ever. He’s intelligent, witty, relevant, and damn funny; his blog is one of the few that I try to read every day. Back in 2004 on Whatever, John gave some wholly unsolicited writing advice, but it was point #5 that especially caught my attention:

5. You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, You Know.

I mean, Christ, people. All that tapping and leaning back thoughtfully in your chair with a mug of whatever while you pretend to edit your latest masterpiece. You couldn’t be more obvious if you had a garish, flashing neon sign over your head that said “Looking For Sex.” Go home, why don’t you. Just go.

Admittedly if everyone followed my advice the entire economy of Park Slope would implode. But look, do you want to write, or do you want to get laid? No, don’t answer that. Anyway, if you really want to impress the hot whomevers, you’ll bring your bound galleys to the coffeeshop to edit. That’ll make the laptop tappers look like pathetic chumps. We’re talking hot libidinous mammal sex for days.

John has since given much more writing advice, and generously compiled it into a stellar book called, appropriately, You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop; I’ve got a first edition copy on my bookshelf (the hardcover is sold out, but the ebook is available), squeezed between Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Alabaster and Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends. However, I diverge from John on this particular point, much as I appreciate the sentiment, in large part because of the anecdotal reason that I do my best writing in cafés.

Totoro in the foamOf course, anecdotal evidence doesn’t hold up in an argument, but that’s the thing: I’m not actually arguing with John here. I’ve seen firsthand and personally known people who perform the exact poseur mating dance as he describes above. However, it’s not true in my case, and here’s why.

I’ve written before about being introverted, and this especially comes into play with information input. If there are too many things going on around me — too many visual distractions, too many loud sounds, smells that are too strong, etc. — my natural reaction is to remove myself from the overstimulated environment; an extreme version of this is that if there is a loud argument going on, or someone is having a temper tantrum (no matter how old they might be), I want to run away and shut myself into the bathroom. That, or I go into a weird sort of fugue state that can only be described as drawing inward. So, too much stimulation means I can’t concentrate on writing, and with a two-year-old running throughout the apartment at all times of the day singing at the top of her voice, this usually means I can’t write at home. (I exaggerate, although not by much.)

But I also can’t go somewhere too quiet. If I hole up at the library, or if I try to work at home with no one around (which, paradoxically, I am doing right this second as I type this), I get antsy from loneliness, and, perhaps not ironically, lack of stimulation. (Right now, it helps that I’m listening to Franz Ferdinand quite loudly on my sound system.) I discovered this acutely at college, during trips to the university library stacks, or just studying in my dorm room when no one else was around. This is also why I very likely would be ill-suited toward working in a solitary writing cabin, which seems to be the dream for so many other writers. I can’t be overstimulated in order to concentrate, but I need just a little stimulation to keep myself awake and on task.

A café provides that perfect middle ground. As long as it’s not too crowded or noisy, I can appreciate the other people sitting at their tables, drinking their lattes, eating their artisanal sandwiches, having quiet conversations. I still plug in my ear buds so that I can choose music that will fade into the background as white noise, but the sound level is never too much to overcome my focus. But the best part is that no one else there gives a shit about me, and I’m largely left alone, which is important in maintaining that focus, the only exceptions being the respectful staff who are either trained in or are instinctually keen on minimizing their intrusions. Interruptions are death to the creative process, as explained by John Cleese thusly:

This entire video is fascinating and brilliant, and I recommend it to anyone working in any creative endeavor. Cleese gets thoroughly into the psychology of creativity and the idea that we all have two modes when it comes to working: closed and open. “Closed” helps us when we know what we’re doing, and we just need to buckle down and finish it. “Open” is necessary for looking at many facets of a problem, or of coming up with several approaches to a joke, or of wondering what will happen in the next chapter. Both are important, but “open” is absolutely necessary to creativity, and one of the ways Cleese suggests to attain this open state is to give yourself enough time and space so that you can work without interruption; he suggests a quiet space, for a duration of about an hour and a half.

That hour and a half (at least) is also necessary because, as he states, and I can back this up with my own experience, most of us cannot just sit and let our minds calm down and get to work on that creative project straight away. It takes almost a half hour of worrying about bills, and thinking about that dentist appointment next week, and remembering to email that friend who wants to get together, and pondering what exactly your spouse meant by a certain comment during an argument earlier that morning, before your brain can settle down and you can focus on the work in front of you. For me, it’s usually between 20 and 30 minutes, but then I’m (hopefully) in the zone and can write fairly solidly (depending on my word rate for any given day) for up to two hours before my ass falls asleep and I need to get up and stretch.

So with all due respect to John Scalzi, I’m not concerned with impressing anyone or prowling for sex partners when I take my MacBook to a café. It’s honestly the most conducive environment for me to get my creative work done. Long may such a home away from home exist.

I’ll end this entry with a caffeinated linkdump, of all my favorite cafés in which I was given a cozy and comfortable atmosphere in return for the purchase of legalized stimulants:

In Raleigh, NC: Cup A Joe at Mission Valley, Café Helios on Glenwood Avenue, Neomonde on Beryl Road, Global Village on Hillsborough Street, and The Irregardless Café on West Morgan Street.

In Singapore: Brew 1819 Café at Temasek Tower (owned by my friend and former colleague Huang Si Jian and her husband), 40 Hands Coffee in Tiong Bahru, The Coffee Bean & Teaf Leaf at the Singapore Post Centre, and Pacific Coffee Company at the Red Dot Design Museum.

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Putting the Toxic in Exotic

Yesterday, Lavie Tidhar at The World SF Blog linked to a smart blog post by Tori Truslow on the use of the word “exotic” to describe her fiction that takes place in Thailand:

Thailand almost never gets portrayed in the West as anything other than Oriental Exoticland. From early travelogues to The King and I to The Windup Girl, travellers and expats sideline the actual characteristics of the place and the experiences of the people that live there in favour of self-fulfilling fantasies about how weird and different it is. This is so much the norm that many Western writers probably don’t think they’re doing it at all, and nor do their readers. But the assumption that an expat must be able to write Thailand well – by virtue of having lived a privileged life surrounded by imported home comforts and culture – is total nonsense. Living somewhere for a long time doesn’t make you exempt, but it might make you think you are, which is a problem in itself. Just because I grew up in Thailand doesn’t mean I don’t need to constantly educate myself about Thai culture and the way my own culture promotes damaging representations of it.

In Imagining Siam, Caron Eastgate Dann writes about the circular effect of the Western construction of the exotic East: “because it is presented in this way by writers, readers expect to receive an exoticised description, and because it is expected by readers, writers feel encouraged, and perhaps even obliged, to fabricate tales of the weird, the exotic and the erotic.”

As both producers and consumers in Western culture, we reward this kind of behaviour, and throwing the word “exotic” around as a positive in reviews feeds the circle, as does pandering to the desire for exotica in writing. How do we break the circle? Not easily or immediately, for sure, but by listening to people whose cultures have been exoticised when they say it’s shit, by looking long and hard at how and why we use the word, by refusing to use it uncritically, and not getting defensive when we do and are called on it – we might have a chance.

This discussion dovetails with the remarks I recently made on the use of “exotic,” “native,” and “Oriental” in an otherwise positive review of my book at Grasping for the Wind. I disagree with The Windup Girl being included here, but this is otherwise very cogent to discussion of the Western representation of Asia. Read the post in full.

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Dystopian Deathmatch! Fight!

Orwell and Huxley

Yesterday, Letters of Note unearthed a letter written by Aldous Huxley to George Orwell upon the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four. He starts off by thanking Orwell for instructing his publisher to send Huxley a copy of the book, and compliments him on its importance, then goes on to challenge the plausibility of Orwell’s dystopian future:

The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. […]

Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.

What Huxley failed to realize, however, is that science fiction is crap at prediction. Very little of what has been written in the nearly 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has actually come to pass. It’s a common conceit, although I believe William Gibson is most famous for saying it, that science fiction is never about the time being written about, it’s always about the time in which the author wrote the book. Orwell’s world of Oceania and Air Strip One is a thinly-veiled analogue to post-WWII England, down to the destroyed buildings, rampant poverty, and chocolate rations. He was never honestly trying to predict the future; instead, he created his counterfactual masterpiece to help ensure that this future never actually would come to pass.

This being said, Huxley was much more spot on about the path humanity was about to take in terms of how it is often distracted so that those in power can remain both wealthy and powerful. We may not have Soma, but we do have reality television, political punditry, LOLcats, and product worship (you’ve seen the queues for the new models of iPads, right?). In terms of loving our servitude, how many of us are addicted to Facebook? We’re not to the stage where the class system is concretized in utero, but we don’t need to be; the income gap between the wealthy and everyone else has never been more pronounced. However, while Huxley was an astute observer of human nature, Brave New World fails as a science fiction novel.

So Nineteen Eighty-Four was not an actual prediction, but it was a narrative masterpiece. Orwell was a student of Huxley’s at Eton, and had to have read Brave New World when it was published in 1932. Both men had read Yevgeny Zamyatin’s ur-dystopia We, which both books bear a strong resemblance to in terms of premise. But in terms of sheer storyNineteen Eighty-Four trounces Brave New World, which is really more of a thought experiment than a novel. To paraphrase Henry James, story is character. Huxley gives us an assortment of point-of-view characters, only one of which (John the Savage) has any kind of narrative arc, and even this is not present throughout the entire book. Orwell gives us Winston and Julia and O’Brien, characters with depth and humanity and tragedy that stay with us long after we’ve finished the novel. Thought experiments are fine for intellectual exercise, but a story is something that resonates and becomes part of who we are.

Both books have incredible merits, but only one of them remains my all-time favorite novel, and has held that number one spot for twenty years. I’m sure you can guess which one.

As a final note, I’ll point y’all to a webcomic drawn in 2009 that illustrates a passage in Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death that contrasts these two books quite succinctly.

Orwell vs Huxley

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Why I Won’t Do Business With Amazon

Amazon Is Nigh a MonopolyIf you’ve poked around this site, you’ll find ordering information for my collection RED DOT IRREAL on the main page. Some folks have asked why the e-version is available at so many outlets (Smashwords, Studio Circle Six, Weightless Books, iBookstore, Nook Store, Goodreads, Kobo, Diesel), but not at the Amazon Kindle e-book store (even though the MOBI file is available directly from Smashwords). Amazon* is the biggest seller of e-books on the planet, so it only makes sense to have my book listed there, right? The big outlying success stories with e-books (Amanda Hocking, J.A. Konrath, Michael Prescott, etc.) were only made possible because of exposure at the Kindle Store, and because my book is a story collection (a format that is generally not popular with book buyers), it could use all the help it could in terms of exposure, right? Am I just a doubleplusmoron for deciding against selling my book there?

The answer is no. Well, at least, I hope not (although if I was a doubleplusmoron, I wouldn’t have the cognitive capacity to recognize that I was in the first place). It’s true that Amazon is the biggest game in town, and I understand this quite well. When I still lived in the States, I frequently ordered from them in addition to supporting my local indie bookstores; it’s hard to say no to their aggressively low prices and prompt deliveries. However, I now refuse to do business with them anymore, as a consumer, an author, or a publisher. Here’s why.

1. Amazon is the Wal-Mart of the Internet.

Wal-Mart gained their reputation by having the lowest prices on the products they carry, lower than anywhere else. They accomplished this by pressuring their suppliers to give them increasingly deep discounts so that they could keep prices low. An effect of this is that the manufacturers of those products, very often found in China and India, were pressured by the suppliers to also reduce costs. This in turn has led to many unfair labor practices in those countries, such as inconsistent pay periods, mandatory overtime (with no extra pay), lax safety conditions, lack of worker’s compensation, militant anti-unionism, and zero job security. Another effect is seen at the consumer level, where Wal-Mart has pushed many independent businesses into bankruptcy because they just couldn’t discount as deeply.

Wal-Mart has an online e-commerce store, but the vast majority of their sales still come from their plethora of gigantic superstores that blanket the USA. They depend on the physical presence of these storefronts to drive their sales. Amazon has no need for actual physical shops, and they never have. All of their sales come from online. Amazon is also well-known for deep-discounting the many items on their site, and their tactics are very similar to Wal-Mart’s in being able to force those prices down. Yet in terms of e-commerce, they’ve actually out-Wal-Marted Wal-Mart.

As an increasingly ethical consumer, I want to support companies with fair business practices, who treat the people who work both for them and with them in a moral and ethical way. Amazon has repeatedly shown that their bottom line is the bottom line, and while customers get to reap these low prices and become brand-loyal to Amazon, every one else up the supply chain is hurting.

2. Amazon Treats Its Own Employees Like Shit

Taking a page from its suppliers in China, Amazon treats its own factory workers as dispensable and beneath the concern of basic human rights. They have to store all the stuff that they import in giant warehouses with either little or no ventilation, and where the temperatures rise to intolerable levels inside; during summer heat waves, workers pass out so routinely that “Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat workers.” Is this really the way to treat the people who physically store and ship the items you sell?

Amazon pushes these workers beyond their limits, then reprimands them for their “low” levels of productivity and threatenes to fire them if they don’t do better. “The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse.” If a worker is genuinely lazy and not pulling their weight, that’s one thing, but to systematically treat all its employees as discardable interchangeable exploitable robots is quite another. It’s horrible enough that theses practice are happening in China, but it’s abominable that they’re also taking place in the USA in the 21st Century.

3. Amazon Hates Brick-and-Mortar Shops

This past Christmas, Amazon launched a “Price Check” app on both the iPhone and Android stores, and encouraged people to walk into their neighborhood shops, scan the prices of the items they wanted, then walk out of the store and order them on Amazon instead. This deal didn’t apply to bookstores, but almost any other independent or chain store could be targeted. This was a despicable way for Amazon to get free labor in determining prices from their competitors, and further encouraged the idea that “cheaper is better,” no matter the impact to the businesses being infiltrated by this behavior.

As part of its “Wal-Mart Attitude,” Amazon wants to be all things to all people, the virtual analog to Buy N Large. It’s true that companies will send employees to visit their competitors in order to keep updated on selection and pricing; this is a legal practice and it encourages openness in competition. However, sending your customers to get this information, with the compensation being a tiny discount on an Amazon order, leaves a terrible taste in the mouth. I get the sense that if Amazon obliterated all physical storefronts everywhere, its stockholders would not be able to stop orgasming long enough to spend their massive stacks of money.

Note that this tactic was aimed both at chain stores and at independent shops, but the indies would have been hit particularly hard by this. Indie stores provide a sense of neighborhood and local import that chains do not, and the money earned by these shops tends to stay within the community; taxes from these local stores go toward improving infrastructure, maintaining public parks, keeping public libraries open, etc. Chain stores and e-commerce sites like Amazon owe nothing to any community, and the profits earned go directly into the stockholders’ pockets. Which leads to my next point.

4. Amazon Refuses to Collect Sales Taxes

Amazon only grudgingly collects sales tax in five US states, and has fought vigorously to avoid collecting taxes in the others, even “where Amazon has a clear physical presence via distribution centers and wholly owned subsidiaries.” This gives it an unfair advantage over other brick-and-mortar and online stores, and denies that tax money to the state governments. Their logic seems to be that because they do not have a physical storefront presence, the laws that apply to physical businesses do not apply to them, especially because there is no federal sales tax. Each state must negotiate with Amazon on its own, even though Amazon may own a warehouse or distribution center in that state, or the trucks delivering Amazon’s products must drive on roads that run through that state, or their employees must rely on public services such as police or firefighters to remain safe in that state, or the customers who buy Amazon’s products pay for them from that state.

Because Amazon refuses to collect these taxes, they can keep their prices low, and continue to cement their market superiority. And when state governments do indeed pursue sales taxes from Amazon, such as in California, Amazon “threatened to cut ties with more than 10,000 California-based websites that get revenue through the Internet giant’s affiliate program if California passes a law to tax online sales.” In Texas, Amazon closed “its suburban Dallas distribution center amid a dispute with the state over millions in state sales taxes.” Instead of working with these state governments, Amazon is content to bully them into a free ride, and then cut and run if they don’t get their way.

5. Amazon Wants To Be the Only E-book Retailer Anywhere

Ever since the Kindle was launched in 2007, Amazon has hawkishly pushed e-books as the next stage in consumer literature. The argument for e-books has been around since I was in high school (when my dad first showed me an article about e-ink technology), but it wasn’t until the last couple of years when e-readers, and Kindles in particular, became affordable to much larger groups of people. Amazon now sells its Kindle and Kindle Fire at a loss, because it knows it can make back its money by providing inexpensive content wrapped in DRM through its devices. Amazon also does this to drive out the competition, essentially forming a monopoly, at which time they are free to raise prices again because no one will have anywhere else to go.

As you might imagine, book publishers aren’t too happy about this. Already, for years they’ve had to sell their books at massive discounts to be listed on Amazon’s site at all, and then, they’re being told that Amazon will be the only retailer to sell their e-books. Thankfully, EPUB became the e-book format standard rather than Amazon’s proprietary MOBI format, and pretty much any e-reader out there now can read it, including the Barnes & Noble NOOK, which seems to be the only major competition for the Kindle right now**.

Two years ago, Apple developed the iBookstore for the iPad and iPhone, and the big publishing conglomerates (often called “The Big Six”) leapt at the chance to make their titles available on such widespread and loved devices. Buy this action, Apple could take enough business away from Amazon that it would definitely impact their bottom line. So, in retaliation for this move, Amazon pulled most or all of the listed books from publisher Macmillan (including all paper editions, not just electronic) from their online store. The listings remained on the site, but the “Buy” buttons were removed.

This hit quite close to home. I’m not published by Macmillan, but many of my writer friends are (at publishers like FSG, Henry Holt, Picador, St. Martin’s Press, and Tor). They never asked to get caught up in this fight, but by delisting these books, Amazon denied them money from royalties that would have been made had the “Buy” buttons remained up during this time. Amazon purposefully took money away from my friends, and this pissed me off. Thankfully, Amazon backed off, and relisted the books, but there was nothing to stop them from doing so again.

And again they have. Just last week, Amazon pulled more than 4,000 books from its site in order to pressure the Independent Publishers Group, one of the USA’s largest book distributors, into renegotiating their contractual terms to move things more toward Amazon’s favor. The books by the publishers distributed by IPG are now delisted from the Kindle e-book store, and the situation remains unresolved at this point. In response, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) are now redirecting all Amazon.com links on their site, and replacing them with links to IndieBound, Powells, and B&N; I’ve had my criticisms of SFWA over the years, but I’ve been more and more impressed with them during John Scalzi’s recent tenure as President, and this action made me respect them so much that I finally, just yesterday, applied for active membership.

6. Amazon is All About Locking You Into Your Content

As I mentioned above, the default file format for Kindle e-books is MOBI, and these are designed to be read either on a Kindle device or in a Kindle app on the iPad (for example). If you buy a book in the Kindle store, you cannot read that book on a NOOK or a Samsung Galaxy Tab or a Sony Reader. That book has been restricted with Digital Rights Management (DRM), one of the most euphemistically insidious concepts to come out of the late 20th. DRM locks you into one device or one format, and it is non-transferable. Cory Doctorow, speaking at a writers festival in Melbourne, put it this way: “It’s as if every time you bought a book at Borders, you were locked into only shelving it in an IKEA bookcase. If you wanted to sell your books through the local independent bookseller down the road, your readers would have to throw away all the books they had bought and buy new copies to shelve on their new bookcases.”

DRM was ostensibly created to thwart piracy of electronic movies, books, and music, but any DRM can be (and has been) broken by a barely interested hacker with a free weekend, which means DRM has proven to be utterly useless in this regard. What it does instead is lock ordinary people into one device or format, and then punish them if they go outside of it. As Charles Stross mentions in “Cutting Their Own Throats“: “If you buy a book that you can only read on the Kindle, you’re naturally going to be reluctant to move to other ebook platforms that can’t read those locked Kindle ebooks — and even more reluctant to buy ebooks from rival stores that use incompatible DRM.”

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I got a NOOK Simple Touch from my parents for Christmas, and I’ve really enjoyed it in the two months I’ve used it thus far; however, I’m always aware that I don’t really own the books that I’ve bought for it, I’m only licensing them. As opposed to paper books that I can display on my bookshelves, or loan to a friend, or sell to a secondhand bookshop, the books I’ve bought for the NOOK exist only on my device and in my NOOK Library; I can’t actually access these files so as to, say, transfer them to my MacBook and read them with Adobe Digital Editions, so my philosophy is to only buy books through the NOOK e-book store that I wouldn’t have normally paid for, or may have only checked out from the library. That way, if I “lose” them for whatever reason I won’t be too terribly put out. For the e-books for which I would like to keep the files, I head to Weightless Books or Smashwords.

Now, as I say, DRM is by no means exclusive to Amazon, but because they are so singularly proprietary about their formats and devices, they are perhaps one of the most perfidious perpetrators of the concept. Amazon’s ideal situation is this: an author publishes her work through Amazon (either through the Kindle Direct Publishing program or through their new publishing arm), Amazon distributes the work through their website alone, and then readers read the work on their Kindles, with Amazon becoming a one-stop shop for everything related to the bookselling process.

This doesn’t even get into the fact that Amazon can reach into any Kindle anywhere and remotely delete its content, nor does it address the stranglehold Amazon wants to have on its book data so it can dictate that third-party sites like Goodreads can only provide links to the Amazon store and no others (to which Goodreads said buh-bye to Amazon), nor does it bring up the many many companies that utilize Amazon Web Services (like Wikileaks before Cablegate) and Amazon Payments (like Kickstarter) who are beholden in their content and payment methods to Amazon’s increasingly restrictive and bureaucratically complicated terms of service.

One company should not have so much commercial power, because, to paraphrase Lord Acton (and not Shakespeare, to whom this is usually attributed), it has been absolutely corrupted by it. Amazon is the biggest bully on the block, and is able to dictate its unfair terms to the world, and so I will no longer have anything to do with them if I can possibly help it. As stated before, I’m not interested in punishing Kindle-users, and so if you would like to buy RED DOT IRREAL to read on the Kindle, you can find it in that format and in many others, DRM-free, at Smashwords.

POSTSCRIPT: An Anti-Amazon Addendum


* You may notice that I personify Amazon quite a bit in this blog post, although I am firmly against the belief that corporations have personhood. So when I refer to “Amazon” here, I’m typically talking about CEO Jeff Bezos and the company’s board of directors.

** In terms of devices, it’s hard to say that the Apple iPad is a competitor for the Kindle, as it was always intended to be a tablet first and an e-reader later, although with the recent release of the Kindle Fire and NOOK Tablet, these distinctions are slowly evaporating.

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Call for Submissions: FISH EATS LION

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS

FISH EATS LION: NEW SINGAPOREAN SPECULATIVE FICTION

Math Paper Press and editor Jason Erik Lundberg are looking for new and innovative short fiction for an original anthology of speculative fiction (which includes science fiction and fantasy, as well as any associated subgenres, such as magic realism, space opera, steampunk, post-apocalypse, etc.) with a Singaporean flavor.

Anchor contributors for this groundbreaking anthology include Cyril Wong, Isa Kamari, Alvin Pang, Dave Chua, Jeffrey Lim, and Stephanie Ye.

In terms of what makes a “Singaporean” speculative short story, we’d like to see at least one of the following:

  • Your protagonist is Singaporean (i.e. born in Singapore)
  • Your protagonist (Singaporean or not) is living in Singapore at the time of your story (i.e. Singapore is the setting)
  • Your story’s themes are inspired by life in Singapore

As long as your narrative contains at least one of the above elements, you’re encouraged to write whatever story you choose. Please do not limit yourself to just writing about our current era; challenge yourself to write a story set in Singapore’s recent or distant past, or in the near or far future. The fantastical or science-fictional element must also be integral to your story (i.e. the story wouldn’t make any sense if you took it out). A good list of clichéd SF story premises to avoid can be found at online magazine Strange Horizons’ guidelines for “Stories We’ve Seen Too Often.”

We are hoping to have a print-on-demand version of the book available outside of Singapore in addition to the paperback being published here, so please consider that you are writing for an international audience. If the story is too all-inclusive, you risk alienating a reader unfamiliar with Singaporean culture. It’s a fine line to walk, with authenticity on one side and accessibility on the other, but it is quite possible to do both.

You need not be a Singaporean citizen or permanent resident to submit to this anthology, but you should have intimate, first-hand knowledge of life in Singapore; if your details ring false or shallow, we will be able to tell.

STORY LENGTH

Stories are recommended to be between 2,000 and 5,000 words; we may consider stories that go above the upper word limit provided that they’re not egregious in length. Also, the keyword here is “new.” Even if you have previously published fiction that might fit this theme, Math Paper Press wants to emphasize that these are new stories, not reprints. You don’t have to write a story especially for the anthology (although we hope you’ll take up that challenge), but your submission must be previously unpublished in any form.

PAYMENT

In terms of compensation, we are offering five (5) contributor copies of the published anthology, and a 40% author discount on further copies, as well as the pride of contributing to Singapore’s first anthology of original speculative fiction! In return, we’re buying First Worldwide Print rights to your story.

You may notice that we’re unable to offer monetary payment this time around. Sorry about that. We’re hoping that for future speculative fiction projects we’ll be able to pay in something other than copies, but right now, that’s all we have to offer (plus the author discount). So if we buy your piece, and if you’re hoping to sell your story to another venue afterward, it’ll count as a reprint, which means the pay rate will be less than it would have been if the venue was buying “first rights” to your story. If you understand this and are cool with it, we’d love to see your fiction.

SUBMISSION

The deadline for submissions is 30 April 2012. Please consult William Shunn’s article on Proper Manuscript Format. Send your story in RTF format as an attachment, along with cover letter, to jason@booksactually.com; submissions sent in other formats, or in the body of the email, will be deleted unread.

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Brief Emergence From Radio Silence

Apologies for the lack of posting, folks. Dealing with some personal stuff I’m not at liberty to discuss right now. Hopefully, I’ll be back to normal (for relative values of “normal”) soon.

I’ll be up to Kuala Lumpur tomorrow for the day to participate at Readings@Seskan’s and get together with some friends. I’m bringing copies of both Red Dot Irreal and A Field Guide to Surreal Botany for sale and signing at the event, so if you’re in the Bangsar area of Kuala Lumpur around 3:30 pm, do please stop in and say hi.

On March 1, I’ll be doing a tripartite reading at BooksActually in Singapore with Wena Poon and Stephanie Ye. More on this when I know it.

I just this morning accepted two mentees for the Ceriph Mentorship Programme. I’ll be meeting with them once a month to work on their prose writing, discuss publishing, and so forth.

But coolest of all, I was recently approved for Professional Membership in PEN. I’ve been an associate member of PEN for some years now, and have been proud to belong to an organization that does so much for freedom of expression and human rights around the world. I’m honored to now be counted, thanks to the publication of Red Dot Irreal, as a full-fledged member.

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Doctor Nice

Baum Plan coverI just this morning finished John Kessel’s recent collection The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories, a mere three and a half years after the kind doctor mailed it to me (although it only took me four days to read it). I’ve been a fan of Kessel’s since around 1993, when I discovered that North Carolina State University (which I’d just started attending) boasted a science fiction writer in their English faculty. As an undergrad, I sought out his survey classes in Science Fiction and Fantasy, as well as his writing workshops. In my callow enthusiasm, I bothered him mercilessly with questions about SF and writing and publishing, and he largely tolerated my many intrusions, and encouraged me in my pursuits.

When I decided to go for graduate school in creative writing, he was the only person I wanted as my mentor and thesis advisor. During those two years, I learned more than I would think possible about pushing my writing from competent to good (although a writer’s measure of his own writing is always suspect). He also invited me to his house when hosting get-togethers for visiting writers, talked to me seriously about where my career was heading, and made me feel as if what I was doing was valid and worthwhile. Somewhere in there, I stopped referring to him as “Dr Kessel” and started calling him “John.”

When The Baum Plan was published by the always awesome Small Beer Press in 2008, he very kindly sent me a copy of the hardcover (with reversible alternate-reality dustjacket!), and although I pledged that I would dive right in, it sat on my shelf for years. So last week, finally, I pulled it down. I’d read about half the stories already when they were originally published, but I was surprised to find that the other half were delightfully unknown.

The meta-literary sequel to Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (“Every Angel is Terrifying), the exploitative relationship of Oz’s working and elite classes (“The Baum Plan for Financial Independence”), and the ingenius Jane Austen/Mary Shelley mashup that sees Victor Frankenstein wooing Mary Bennet (“Pride and Prometheus”) all reinforce Kessel’s dual loves of science fiction and classic literature found previously in stories like Another Orphan (a man transported from the present day to Captain Ahab’s whaling ship in Moby Dick) and “Gulliver at Home” (told from the POV of Gulliver’s wife, left behind while he travels).

His Lunar Quartet (“The Juniper Tree,” “Stories for Men,” “Under the Lunchbox Tree,” and “Sunlight or Rock”) explore his examination of gender roles with the matriarchal Society of Cousins ensconced on the moon. I still hope that one day he’ll write a novel in this universe, one that he’d begun years ago and called Soft Upset (a wonderful working title that refers to the physical disturbance caused by a lunar landing), but if not, these four stories are exemplars of the imagination of alternate societies. “The Invisible Empire” also sheds a fascinating alternate light on feminist enforcement squads who have assassinated President Grover Cleveland, and inflict punishment on men proven to be abusive towards their wives and children.

I was greatly excited to see the return of Detlev Gruber in “It’s All True,” the time-traveling media recruiter encountered previously in “Some Like It Cold,” “The Miracle of Ivar Avenue” and the fantastic novel Corrupting Dr. Nice. Even if we don’t see Detlev again, I hope Kessel returns to this “Moment-Universe” milieu, as it’s always a fun way to explore exploitation, media, and economic politics, although he may have said all he wants to on this score.

“The Snake Girl” (Kessel’s only explicitly mainstream piece, written thanks to a wager with Wilton Barnhardt) and “Powerless” (which is also very light on fantastical elements) don’t have quite the same punch and enthusiasm of his speculative work, but are still skillfully written. And the short short pieces “The Red Phone” and “Downtown” provide an element of wacky absurdity quite fitting for the “story grenade” form.

The only story that left me feeling “meh” was “The Last American,” which follows the life of an influential man who is at times a bully, an abusive soldier, a successful filmmaker, a religious leader, and a politician. Written in the style of a review of a far-future documentary, it is an interesting exercise in direct speculation, but any narrative elements fell flat to me. Still, only one dud among thirteen glorious stories ain’t bad.

The Baum Plan can be ordered in hardcover or paperback from fine bookstores everywhere (though I encourage you to support your indies), or directly from Small Beer Press (which is also great, as the money goes straight to the publisher). The Creative Common-licensed DRM-free ebook version can be downloaded for free (which comes with a great reading group guide).

Last year, Kessel was invited to Fractal ’11, an annual event “held in Medellín, Colombia that seeks to help bridge the gap between the speed of scientific and technological changes, and the ability of people to adapt.” He gave a fascinating plenary talk titled, “The Future as Mirror: How SF Uses the Tomorrow to Understand Today,” and I just discovered the video for this event today. Enjoy.

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Reading in Kuala Lumpur

February Reading at Seskan's

Here’s the announcement poster for Readings@Seskan’s in twelve days, in which I’ll be participating. I’m quite tickled that Sharon Bakar gave me top billing on the poster, as I’m about 99% sure that my name will not be one that attracts Malaysians to the event. I’m just happy that I’m being given the chance to read with five other fine writers.

If anyone happens to be in Kuala Lumpur on the 25th, please come on down!

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The Loneliest Number

Wow, when you don’t blog for five days, reader numbers plummet! Sorry about that, folks. I’ve been submerged in writing the Tower novel, which has taken a lot of energy away from this blog. As of right now, the word count stands at 83,700 words; I know that this isn’t very interesting for some of you, but it’s an important motivator for me. When people still used typewriters, they could mark their progress through the increasing size of the stack of papers next to them, but in the absence of that paper pile, progress instead is marked by the mounting word count.

Anyway, another reason I haven’t blogged is that Janet, Anya, and Janet’s parents left on Friday morning to visit family in Hong Kong. I didn’t really spend as much time with them as I should have before they left because of the novel-writing (I was feeling a bit reclusive as well), and after they took off on their flight, I was filled with profound sadness and loneliness. I couldn’t go back home all day because I didn’t want to face the empty apartment, so I took the train from the airport all the way to Orchard Road, and spent the afternoon wandering around. I picked up a few books at Kinokuniya (The Thorn and the Blossom by Theodora GossThe Hall of the Singing Caryatids by Victor Pelevin, and No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems by Liu Xiaobo), then saw a matinee of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (I’d seen it once already with my buddy Steven, but wanted to catch it one more time in the theatre; it was even better the second time).

Yesterday, things were even worse, and I didn’t even leave the apartment except to get food. I honestly tried to be productive, but every time I sat down at the laptop I just felt depressed. So I did nothing but watch TV and movies all day, and felt like a complete waste afterward.

This morning, I tried to get some work done at home, but again was too distracted by the absence of my ladies. When they were still here, I felt like I needed solitude to get writing done, but paradoxically, once I had that solitude, I couldn’t work. Turns out I’m not the only one; my pals Matthew Berryman and Paolo Bacigalupi have had similar experiences (the thread starts at the bottom of the image):

So finally, in the afternoon, I threw on some clothes and made myself leave the flat and take the bus down to the nearest café at the Singapore Post Centre. It was extremely crowded, but I managed to find a seat, order a coffee, and get to work. Two and a half hours and 1500 words later, and I was done for the day, and feeling much better about myself. The lonely blues are still there, but getting some writing done today really helped to ameliorate them. Here’s hoping I can stay productive until Janet and Anya get back on Thursday night.

(In terms of blog productivity, I think I need to be a bit more realistic about my goals; instead of trying to blog every day, I’ll pare things back to two or three times a week. That way, if I’m able to do more than that, bonus! Oh, and I’m still working on that Amazon entry; it’s coming up next.)

To top off this post, here’s Aimee Man singing “One (Is the Loneliest Number)”* (my favorite rendition of this song):

* This song was on the soundtrack for the film Magnolia, and was the best thing to come out of that movie, which was a pretentious waste time and made me loathe Tom Cruise more than I already did.

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Stein of Coffee!

I’ve got a post about Amazon.com (and my refusal to do any business with them as a consumer, author, or publisher) that I’m working on, but it’s not quite ready yet.

So in lieu of that post, I present the following photographic evidence:

Writing at the cafe

Renovation noise drove me out of the house again today, and while Janet took Anya to her parents’ place once more, I nipped over to The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf at the nearby Singapore Post Centre to get some more novel writing done. Next to my MacBook, you’ll see the Café Mocha that I nursed for the entire afternoon because it came in a glass the size of a freaking beer stein. I’ve seriously never had so much coffee at one time, but rationing it out over several hours helped any caffeine-related side-effects that might have otherwise overcome me.

On my screen is a page from the Tower novel, which I’m writing in Scrivener. If you’re a writer working on long-form fiction, or non-fiction, or screenplays, do yourself a favor and buy this amazing program. As you can see, one of Scrivener’s features is full-screen editing, which blanks out the rest of the open programs on your desktop to eliminate distractions. This feature, plus the stein of coffee, enabled me to write another 1600 words today, bringing the book’s total count to 81,000 words. I’m now past the two-thirds marker, and hoping that the current momentum will carry me quickly toward the end.

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Write As If Posthumously

To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free, when men are different from one another and do not live alone — to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone. From the age of uniformity, from the age of solitude, from the age of Big Brother, from the age of doublethink — greetings!

He was already dead, [Winston] reflected. It seemed to him that it was only now, when he had begun to be able to formulate his thoughts, that he had taken the decisive step. […] Now that he had recognized himself as a dead man, it became important to stay alive as long as possible.

(Orwell, 1984)

Yesterday’s cyberflânerie through Facebook and Twitter brought up two different but related interviews: a June 2010 talk given by Christopher Hitchens at the New York Public Library on “the duality of his relationship with death, both a fiend of fear and a frontier of freedom”; and a new interview at The 99% with writer, artist, and filmmaker Marjane Satrapi (of Persepolis fame) on the occasion of the screening of her new live-action movie Chicken With Plums (based on her graphic novel).

The money shot from the Hitchens interview (via Maria Popova’s marvellous site Brain Pickings):

I’ve always known that I’m born into a losing struggle… don’t know anyone who’s come out of that a winner. One should try to write as if posthumously. Because then you’re free of all the inhibition that can cluster around even the most independent-minded writer. You don’t really care about public opinion now, you don’t mind about sales, you don’t care what the critics say. You don’t even care what your friends, your peers, your beloved think. You’re free. Death is a very liberating thought.

And the money shot from the Satrapi interview:

Life is too short and we cannot spoil it. I don’t have 300 years in front of me. So I just do the things that I really want to do at the moment because that’s the only way you will do them well. If you don’t believe in yourself, it won’t work. Because creation, you know, it means that you don’t have any salary, you don’t have any retirement, all of that. So if you don’t have the security, at least have the freedom. I go for the freedom.

Both interviews are worth seeing/reading in their entirety, so do please click the links (although the Hitchens NYPL talk is 90 minutes, so you’ll need some uninterrupted time).

These remarkable writers, each remarkable in different ways, have hit upon something that creatives don’t think often enough. We’re typically wrapped up in our projects, and trying to make them (whatever they are: fiction, paintings, music, interpretational dance, etc.) the best we possibly can with the skills and talents that we bring; because of this, we focus very much on the moment, which is very good for completing our short-term goals. But we also have to think long term, very long term, and keep reminding ourselves that, unless the Singularity occurs and we all transcend our physical bodies and ascend into the noösphere, one day we, all of us, will die.

Death is scary, perhaps the scariest thing there is. No one, in real life, has come back from it, and no one has yet escaped it. It is inevitable, and no one can prove what happens after it (anyone who says they can is selling something; I’m a Buddhist, but my nearly 30 years prior to becoming one have instilled in me a strong skepticism of concepts like reincarnation, and I still have a very hard time with it). There are lots of theories, but no one knows, and that great unknowability is perhaps the scariest part of death. The idea can be paralyzing.

But rather than let death get into one’s heart and mind now (why give it the early opportunity?), one can pour one’s entire creative pursuits into the thing that you want to do and what you do well. Why wait? We all know what’s sitting there patiently for us if we wait too long, so it makes the most sense to create the most incredible art that we can while we’re still walking the earth.

At the end of 2011, I quit my teaching job at Hwa Chong Institution. (Well, technically, I quit at the end of September, since I had to give three months’ notice.) What both I and my principal agreed on was that I just was not suited for the high-stress atmosphere that did not give me ample time to pursue my writing. In point of fact, teaching there was creatively stultifying, and I felt myself withering away each day that I tried to hang in there. I greatly enjoyed the classroom interactions with my students, but teaching was actually a tiny percentage of how I spent my time, and all of the many many other duties I was asked to perform drained me of any energy and motivation to write. In the four years that I taught there, work on the Tower novel came to a screeching halt, and only picked up again last year during school breaks and weekends that I wasn’t overwhelmed with marking student essays.

So yeah, I don’t currently have steady employment (although I have a lot of freelancing irons in the fire), but I’m happier than I have been for more than four years. I’m now been making a steady progression on the novel. I was actually able to get 1600 words written today because Janet and Anya fled to my in-laws house in response to maintenance drilling and hammering on our housing block’s roof, which was LOUD, and I myself fled to a nearby café with my laptop. After my work today, the total count for the novel is now 79,400 words; I was strongly tempted to keep going and finish 600 more to bring the total up to an even 80K, but I was already exhausted after the writing I’d gotten done, and I’d stopped in the middle of an exciting scene, one I’m sure to be inspired to continue when I next get back to it, whether tomorrow or in a day or two.

The big reason I stayed at HCI for as long as I did was because of the financial security, but I’ve come to appreciate something Cory Doctorow once said (although I’ve forgotten where; if anyone knows, please be so kind as to enlighten us in the comments below): It’s stupid to work someplace if the only benefit is money, because it’s robbing you of your time here on earth; you can always make more money, but time is the only resource you can’t get back. If creatives remember this, it’ll drive us to make the best of the time we do have, and it’ll lend an urgency to our artistic endeavors that will push us toward greatness.

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“Indie”

It’s late, and I’m tired, and somehow I blew all my writing motivation for the day after getting 1400 words written in the novel this afternoon (which, all things being said, I don’t mind at all, since novel progress is terribly important), but I’ll throw some word juice at y’all for a bit.

It’s this word “indie.”

You see, it used to have cachet. If you were an indie musician, it meant you were making and distributing your music yourself, either because you hadn’t yet been signed to a label, or because you were giving all labels the finger. If you were an indie publisher, it meant you had looked at the major NYC-based conglomerates and found something lacking there, and decided to fill that niche with your own good taste by curating your own set of books and authors. If you were an indie bookseller, it meant you were either tired of the big box bookstores (many of which aren’t around now) with impersonal service and price slashing, or you wanted to sell books where they weren’t previously being sold, both reasons pointing to a love of community.

If you were an indie author, it typically meant that you purposefully eschewed the major NYC-based conglomerates and either went through an indie publisher, or you got in there, did the hard job, and published your own work. If you were smart enough to avoid the vanity presses, it also usually meant having boxes of your own books stuffed in your closet, to be hauled out at book fairs or meet-the-author sessions, or what have you, and you were doubly motivated to sell those suckers, firstly because you were proud of your writing, and secondly because they were expensive to produce and you wanted to recoup some of your costs.

And as you sat there looking at the boxes and boxes of printed paper with stories you wrote down from your own head inscribed on them in ink or toner, you might have wondered why they weren’t selling so well. Maybe it was because you skimped on the cover art and snagged a public domain piece that didn’t really fit. Maybe it was because you couldn’t be bothered to find someone to edit the text, because who really cares about typos anyway? Maybe it was throwing together the internal design because you figured people just want the text and it doesn’t matter how it’s presented. But then, as you sat there, you maybe started thinking that those things are important, that maybe you should improve the quality of your books next time. Maybe then, the next book might sell better, although it may not.

But now, “indie,” at least in terms of referring to writers, has come to mean anyone with Microsoft Word who feels the urge to vomit a sludgy trail of words, and then slap it up onto the Internets for sale. Creating e-books has never been easier (I went through Smashwords for Red Dot Irreal, because of their quality control, their automatic format conversion, and their distribution to multiple outlets, but it’s just as easy to go through B&N’s PubIt program, or Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program), and because of this, the online stores have gotten flooded with e-books that look as if a lower-than-average third grader had put them together.

And because of this, “indie” has now lots its cachet, its sense of cool rebellion. Now “indie” = “anyone,” which has completely sucked all meaning out of the term.

I am proud to be an independent author, but I have only self-published twice in my career. In 2003, Janet and I put together Four Seasons in One Day, and the main reasons to do so were to showcase both of us and to get in a “trial run” (so to speak) on forming our own indie press. Every other one of my publications has been published by someone else (most of the pieces in 4Si1D were also reprinted, by the way). (I’m not counting The Curragh of Kildaire here, as I never intended to sell it, but yes, if you want to get pedantic, that was self-published too.) Even the ebook of Red Dot Irreal went through a rigorous editing process with Kenny and Karen at Math Paper Press first, and it wasn’t until the final print version was ready that I felt comfortable converting it to digital.

So please, can I ask for some common sense, and ask folks to stop using “indie” when you mean “self-published”? The terms are not interchangeable, not even semantically similar. My blood pressure thanks you in advance.

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Impossible Realism

Mad Tea Party by DaliIn a recent blog entry (27 Jan), Jonathan Carroll (one of my all-time favorite writers) brings up the idea of “Impossible Realism,” a term that seems to have been generated by issue no. 52 (2009) of Conjunctions, the literary journal of Bard College that is edited by Bradford Morrow (which has been friendly toward Carroll’s short fiction and novel extracts). This particular issue (which contains Carroll’s story “The Stolen Church“) seems to have been designed in order to expose more genre writing to Conjunctions‘ readers, much like the aegis of a previous issue (no. 39, the “New Wave Fabulists” issue, 2002). Although contrary to that issue, no. 52 seems to be split between recognizably genre writers and recognizably literary writers who actually write genre fiction but are not marketed as such.

Just like the term “New Wave Fabulists,” I wonder where along the spectrum of fantastika “Impossible Realism” would fit. The blurb for the issue is: “Postfantasy fictions that begin with the premise that the unfamiliar or liminal really constitutes a solid ground on which to walk.” Which makes my eyes cross a little. What is “postfantasy”? If a story contains fantastical elements (which “impossible” would seem to denote), doesn’t that mean it’s “mid-fantasy” or just “fantasy”? There are so many terms now that describe in one fashion or another the cross-genre trope-blending between fantastical and mimetic fiction: Magic Realism, Slipstream, Fantastika, Irrealism, Fabulism, Postmodern Fantasy, Interstitial Fiction; is this yet one more attempt to make genre fiction palatable to readers who normally find it icky?

And this is the crux of Carroll’s entry, wherein he calls for a return to wonder:

For many adults, wonder is a guilty pleasure like reading comic books, karaoke, or eating Hostess Snowballs. It’s something for kids—childish, and beyond a certain age vaguely embarrassing. Not something you admit doing if you want to keep your good standing in the Adult Community. On the other hand, mention names like Murakami (giant talking frogs), Gogol (detached noses found in loaves of bread), Ionesco and his rhinoceroses, Jonathan Lethem (animal private investigators), the wilder short stories of Hawthorne, Julio Cortazar and his human axolotl, Goethe and Christopher Marlowe (Dr. Faustus, I presume?) and the literati quickly bow their heads in deference.

And why is that, exactly? Why does becoming an adult automatically mean (for large numbers of people) giving up that sense of wonder we had as children? Once we reach a certain age, the Real World is constantly beckoning, but it sometimes seems to me that we as a species need to become a bit less pragmatic. We need more dreamers, more people willing to creatively wonder. This is an issue quite relevant in Singapore, where the government has explicitly stated that its citizens need to become more creative in order to compete in the world, yet the education system and civil service is designed to drill out individuality and free thought. Creativity through government mandate is not creativity.

I sense a frustration in Carroll’s writing here. He does not like to be called a fantasy writer, yet he writes stories with overtly fantastical premises. He is published in “respectable” venues such as Conjunctions, yet the authors with whom he shares many tables of contents do not share his sense of wonder. (And believe me, he is not the only writer frustrated by this situation.) Is perhaps the paradox here that realism itself is impossible? Fiction, by its very nature, is “Stories That Have Not Happened,” which would seem to be the very definition of fantasy to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I applaud Morrow and Conjunctions for being open to publishing genre fiction; however, when these issues are few and far between, and are seen as “special events,” they continue to contribute to the stigma that Realism Is Proper Literture, although we can slum it with the non-realist stuff on rare occasions. It’s the equivalent of editing a “Writers of Color Issue” or a “Women’s Issue” or a “GLBT Issue.” Awareness is one thing, but a more productive solution is to integrate those writers and those fictions into the fabric of your publication on a regular basis. In Conjunctions, to take just one example (and I really don’t mean to dump on them as they’re of consistently high quality), genre authors like Elizabeth Hand (who is highly praised by Morrow in this Millions interview (link via The Mumpsimus)) are published there anyway, but this fact is not widely publicized.

These are depressing times. We could all do with a bit more wonder in our lives.


The Woman Who Married a CloudN.B. In case you weren’t aware, Subterranean Press is releasing in June a landmark collection of Carroll’s short fiction, called The Woman Who Married a Cloud: Collected Stories. It will gather all the short fiction previously published in The Panic Hand (which is long out of print), as well as a whole other book’s worth of stories, including his masterful novella The Heidelberg Cylinder. I can safely say that I am more excited about this book than any other being released in 2012.

Note from SubPress: “If the Signed Limited Edition calls to you, please get your order in soon. Only 40 copies remain available for preorder. The trade edition should be available via the regular outlets, but the only way to guarantee a copy of the Limited Edition is to order direct.”

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When Is a Writer a “Writer”?

The WriterI’ve wanted to be a writer since I was about seven years old. Why seven? Because that was the age when I realized that the wonderful books I’d been reading, and that my parents had read to me, were actually written down. By a real person! Books didn’t just sprout into existence; instead, someone sat down and put those particular words in that particular order, and when they were finished, a book existed. Once that realization washed over me, I wanted to do the same thing myself; I wrote lots of little noodling stories in my youth, but one that sticks particularly in my mind is a mystery/thriller involving ninjas and my mother’s car, called “The Pulsar NX is Missing!”

But when did I go from being an aspiring writer to thinking of myself as a Writer? John Scalzi examines this topic, and does so in a tripartite way, of self-identifying first as a writer, then as a professional writer, then as a “good” writer. Sticking just to the first facet of this argument, Scalzi does a good job breaking down and codifying what “writer” means, so I won’t belabor the point, except to agree that a writer writes: “A writer […] chooses written words, and chooses them not just for mechanical and practical reasons, but for (or also for) esthetic and artistic purposes. Writers want to write, rather than have to write. In presenting an idea, the medium they intend for it to be in is the written word.”

Yesterday was the first of the monthly creative writing workshops I’m facilitating for BooksActually, and afterward, I was chatting with one of the participants, and she mentioned that she’d long had a desire to write but didn’t really consider herself a writer. And it struck me that many people in similar situations have an insecurity about that particular label, as if it is undeserved. As if only people with blazing talent and self-confidence could dare to call themselves so. But as Scalzi also notes: “There are lots of writers with raw talent who never pan out because they expect that raw talent should be all they have to bring to the game. Surprise! It’s not.”

Talent is undoubtedly important, but perseverance is equally important. Several years ago, after some whining rant where I complained about not selling a story to a particular magazine or anthology (I forget now which one), my friend Tim Pratt wisely remarked that if I was really serious about being a writer, i.e. treating writing as a career, then I would have to keep reminding myself that I would be doing it for the rest of my life. If I wasn’t getting published in the same venues as my writer friends, it didn’t mean that I never would, or that equally cool zines wouldn’t pop up later. But that wasn’t really the point either.

I think it was in that moment, of reading Tim’s comment, that something vitally important switched in my brain. I’d been so driven by the pursuit for publication — first, any publication, then paid publication, then pro paid publication — that I hadn’t stopped to consider the big picture. Publication itself couldn’t be the ultimate result, but rather the continual improvement of my writing abilities. A continuous lifelong learning process of growth.

Despite the fact that at that point I’d already been to Clarion, and gotten published in a number of venues, it wasn’t until that day that I could call myself a Writer. I no longer saw writing as a means to an end, but the goal itself, an art to which to devote myself. It’s likely I would have come to this realization on my own, but Tim’s words were the kick in the brain I needed to get there quicker. Since then, I’ve pushed myself as an artist, I’ve tried new things, I’ve experimented, all in the cause of making myself a better writer, and it’s pretty obvious that I’ve made huge leaps in quality, if my published fiction is anything to go by.

And I think that this, at root, is the key, this moment of realization that you’re in it for the long haul, that you’re going to have to find massive reserves of both stamina and perseverance, because the odds are against you. That anyone can throw words together, that thousands upon thousands of wannabe writers have the same hunger for publication, but what will distinguish you from the masses is your devotion to your art. I finally understand what Zoran Zivkovic means when he says that fiction-writing is a noble calling.

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Drawing Out the Dragons: A Review and Appreciation

As a writer, it’s sometimes very easy to get discouraged with this career I’ve chosen. Rejection rather than acceptance is the norm, a book may sell to a publisher then get dropped because of financial reasons, work that does gets published may get panned or, even worse, ignored. Holding onto that motivation that made me want to be a writer in the first place can sometimes seem a futile endeavor.

And so when James A. Owen released Drawing Out the Dragons: A Meditation on Art, Destiny, and the Power of Choice as an e-book (on April Fool’s Day, of all days), it was like an inspirational bolt from heaven, exactly what I needed to read right now at this point in my life and career.

One thing the book does is to humble me utterly. Owen has gone through ten people’s worth of seemingly-insurmountable challenges, and yet he has never lost his faith in himself as an artist and creator. Not when he was expected not to survive a mysterious childhood illness, not when his drawing hand was crushed in a car accident, not when he sold everything he owned to move overseas for his dream job and then watch that job evaporate before his eyes. Owen’s consistently positive outlook enabled him to not only meet these adversities (and many more) head-on, but to turn them into opportunities for life-changing triumphs.

In the telling of his life’s lessons, Owen consistently relays the impression that while his experiences may have been unique, the way that he handled them was not, that any of us can maintain the same mindset toward success. That the choices we make — moving long-distance for a new career, quitting a safe regular job to focus on one’s passion, taking inspiration from Superman and visualizing oneself healthy, or simply making lines on paper — are always up to us to make the best of.

Unlike normal types of self-help or motivational books, Drawing Out the Dragons provides inspiration through experiential storytelling. Owen never lays out the “keys to success” or the “steps to happiness,” but through his actions and the wonderfully fluid way in which in relays them in this book, any reader can glean these keys and steps for oneself. A modern riff on the idea of giving a man a fish versus teaching a man to fish, and Owen proves himself a master teacher.

I’ve known James Owen for a number of years now, but only online. We’ve never met in person, but he has done more for me as a friend and “big brother” than many people I know in real life. But perhaps the best thing he’s yet done is to write Drawing Out the Dragons and present it to the world, and for this I am infinitely grateful. If I am ever lucky enough to meet James in the flesh, you can bet I’m going to ask to see his Superman ring.

Buy Drawing Out the Dragons as a DRM-free PDF ebook at Coppervale International for only $4.99. Or you can get it for the same price for the Barnes & Noble NOOK or the Amazon Kindle.

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Big Publishing News: Book Book Book! (Updated)

I’ve been sitting on some pretty cool publishing news for the last several months, but have been waiting until details were ironed out before I felt I could announce it here. Tonight, before the launch/reading for Ceriph issue no. 2 (which contains my story “Air is Water is Air,” the first part of which I read to this packed audience at BooksActually), finalized contracts were signed, and so now it all feels official and very very real.

In June September 2011 (only five eight months from now), Math Paper Press, the independent press run by BooksActually’s amazing proprieters Kenny Leck and Karen Wai, will publish my debut collection of short stories, Red Dot Irreal!!! Yay and W00T!

The book collects many of my fantastical short stories set in Singapore, and one in Bali (just for shiggles), what I’m calling Equatorial Fantastika. With Math Paper Press, Karen & Kenny have begun branching out into publishing, and will be bringing their considerable talent for design and presentation (not to mention bookselling) to my little volume. I actually sold the book back in September, and have shown an unbelievable amount of restraint not to blab it all over the internets before now.

This isn’t a full collection, it’s only about 36,000 words and has a fairly tight focus, but I’m really jazzed about it. We’re currently discussing whether the budget will handle interior illustrations, which I think would be really cool. I’m also talking with Karen & Kenny about possibly having copies available to be distributed in North America, so my USian peeps could also have access to it, but nothing’s concrete yet.

Here’s the proposed table of contents for Red Dot Irreal (subject to change):

01. Bogeymen
02. Ikan Berbudi (Wise Fish)
03. Hero Worship, or How I Met the Dream King
04. Lion City Daikaiju
05. Dragging the Frame
06. Kopi Luwak
07. Paper Cow
08. Taxi Ride
09. Coast
10. In Jurong

Dragging the Frame” and “Ikan Berbudi” have been drastically expanded from their original flash format into fully-fledged short stories; I wrote like mad during the holidays in November and December so that I could get them done before the school year started again last week. “Bogeymen” sold to Bill Schafer for Subterranean Magazine nearly four years ago now, but I don’t know if it’ll show up there before the story gets published in the book.

So anyway: eeeee! Book book book! Happy happy happy!


N.B. This entry has been updated with the new release date; the book will now be published in September rather than June. Things were pushed back a bit by Math Paper Press’ ambitious publishing schedule, and the many many other events and activities being organized by Kenny and Karen. Still, all told, a three-month delay is hardly anything, and is still in time to launch for the 2011 Singapore Writers Festival.

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The Immersion Book of SF

I’ve been meaning to post about this since last month, but just haven’t gotten the chance before now. It’s been about three months since my last blog entry, which should come as an indication of just how damn busy I’ve been, both as a teacher and a daddy.

Immersion SFAnyway, this is just to let you all know that an anthology that I’m lucky to be a contributor for is now available. The Immersion Book of SF [Publisher | Amazon], edited by Carmelo Rafala, also boasts stories from Tanith Lee, Lavie Tidhar, Aliette de Bodard, Gareth Owens, Chris Butler, Gord Sellar, and others.

My story in the antho, “The Time Traveler’s Son,” was originally published as a tiny extremely-limited-edition book from Papaveria Press in December 2008, which has since sold out. So I’m glad that the story will be getting a wider audience with the release of The Immersion Book of SF. It’s attracting some nice early attention:

“What I’m really interested in are stories like ‘The Time Traveler’s Son’ by Jason Erik Lundberg. Ironically, this is the least ‘speculative’ of the bunch as it could be interpreted as either ‘realistic’ or science fictional, giving it that extra layer of engagement. What made ‘The Time Traveler’s Son’ work for me is the emotional investment it gives the reader, even when the narrative is told in short chunks.”
–Charles Tan, World SF blog

“‘The Time Traveller’s Son’ from Jason Erik Lundberg is another shorter piece, and another very good story. It tells a story across a lifetime, of an absentee father and the lie (perhaps) he told to his son, to lessen the heartbreak of his absence. It does well creating an air of uncertainty about what the real truth is, and paints a rather moving piece of fiction.”
–Matthew Dent, Amazon.co.uk reader

The Immersion Book of SF contains stories by many whose names will be familiar to fans of speculative fiction, with Aliette de Bodard’s ‘Father’s Last Ride’ and Jason Erik Lundberg’s ‘The Time Traveller’s Son’ vying for position as my favourite in the volume. Maybe I have father issues. Anyway, the first offers a ride that is as emotional as it is exhilarating, with lightskimmers providing a way into a story that’s as beautiful as the auroras a daughter travels through. It’s a satisfying read with characters to care for, just like Lundberg’s which provides more than you think you’re getting, resonating in a way that puts me in mind of an Auden poem. To say more is to diminish the story.”
–Ray Cluley, Amazon.co.uk reader

Which, naturally, puts a smile on my face.

It was Wade’s seventh birthday. There were cake and ice cream and presents in the backyard, and a colorful piñata shaped like a donkey, and twenty of Wade’s friends from school, and his mom had even hired a clown, a lazy clown, and Wade could smell alcohol when the clown bent down and breathed, “Happy birthday.” Crap at balloon animals, he was winded after blowing one up, and upon failing to twist or turn or knot it into a dog or giraffe or something, he would present the sausage of air and latex with a weak flourish, “It’s a snake!”

Upstairs, in the house, Wade’s dad finished packing. The lame clown forgotten and left to wheeze on a lawn chair and nip from a cheap silver flask, Wade asked his dad where he was going, why he wasn’t down at the party.

“Important business, kiddo,” said his dad. “Time traveling business. My first mission.” He closed the suitcase and pointed out the window to the ‘84 Chevy Celebrity, bandage brown, rusted through, the fabric inside the roof coming unglued, hanging down, a drapery of obscuration.

“That’s our car,” Wade said.

“Oh no, kiddo, it’s my time machine. I can chat with Marie Curie, or punch Hitler in the face, or have tea with an archaeopteryx. I can go anywhere I want, and anywhen.”

“All your stuff is packed inside.”

“It’s a long trip. I may be gone for a while.”

Immersion SF full cover

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There and Back Again

My latest contribution to The Daily Cabal went up Friday, called There and Back Again, my none-too-subtle nod to Tolkien.

This installment concludes the series of YA flash pieces collectively called Looking Downward. If you would like to read the entire series, you can do so at the following links:

01: Mini Buddha Jump Over the Wall
02: The World, Under
03: Androcles Again
04: Look Into My Eyes, You’re Under
05: Shiftless, Hopeless
06: Cricetinae’s Paroxysm
07: Wind and Harmony
08: Dragons at Dawn
09: Goodnight Nobody
10: There and Back Again

At some point, I will be gathering all these separate pieces into one story, filling in the blank spots, smoothing out the transitions, and then sending it off into the world. If you enjoyed Anya’s adventures in the Land of the Grey Dusk, please do let me know.

My next project for The Daily Cabal is another series of short shorts, but less sequentially connected than Looking Downward. It will be a 23-part linked narrative called Fragile, which will take a liberal interpretation of the song titles (but not the lyrics) of the masterful Nine Inch Nails double album The Fragile (which still remains my favorite NIN album). This is a concept I’ve been thinking about for a long time, although I previously thought it would take the form of a mosaic novel or collection of linked stories; I still may expand the project into such a form, but for right now, I want to get the ideas down, even if in such terse form as flash fiction. I hope you’ll tune in.

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